In the movies, double agents receive briefcases filled with unmarked bills.
When James Bond chases a target, the pursuit involves high-end cars, five-star hotels, and glamorous locations.
In other words, lots and lots of money changing hands.
Right … well, guess what. In actual fact, and according to an exclusive report in Insider.com, real spies come fairly cheap.
One particular spy had been a member of a scientific committee in NATO’s Undersea Research Centre, based in Italy, when counterintelligence agents began surveillance.
The committee did research for NATO’s warships and submarines. Yet somehow, China had managed to install a double-agent — in the form of prominent Estonian marine scientist Tarmo Kõuts — as vice president of the committee, Insider reported.
One of the first things agents did was run a forensic audit on his finances and personal economic activity. It turns out that Kõuts, an Estonian national, was a bargain: He cost the Chinese only 17,000 euros (about US$20,000) over the course of two years.
On an annual basis even the most dangerous spies — those delivering Western military and security secrets to Russia or China — can cost less than the price of a luxury car, Insider reported.
According to sources in the intelligence and counterintelligence, when searching for an asset who has been bought by a hostile power, officials try to see whether their targets are suddenly richer than they ought to be.
“You have to determine how much money the subject should have and what a reasonable lifestyle for their income would look like,” a Baltic intelligence official, who was briefed on the Kõuts case, told Insider.
“Then while they are under surveillance you can determine if they are living in a manner that suggests extra income.”
But the officer — who is on active duty and cannot be named — points out that whoever recruits spies knows perfectly well how they’re caught, as they often work alongside their own domestic counterintelligence services, Insider reported.
“China is careful, in this case he had only been given about 17,000 euros so far, which is quite a bit for only a couple of years of work, but not enough to trigger any suspicion,” said the official of Kõuts, who was sentenced to three years in prison for spying for China.
“He had been given luxury trips and flight and hotel upgrades as part of his compensation and while this sort of thing is generally easier to hide from counterintelligence, once you really start watching it can send a flag when it’s clear the subject can’t afford regular first class upgrades and the like.”
Betraying one’s country comes with tremendous legal and even physical risks.
Serious traitors can expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Or their former handlers may target them for assassination (a solution favored by Russia’s infamous Unit 29155), Insider reported.
But history shows that spies who take the risk do so for surprisingly little money.
There are only five known instances of Americans being paid about US$1 million dollars to spy on their country, over careers that in each case spanned two decades.
Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI are considered the most devastatingly effective double agents in US history. Both were in senior intelligence positions.
Ames was a CIA analyst who worked on the USSR; Hanssen was a senior FBI counterintelligence official.
More than a dozen CIA spies were revealed through their work — leading to multiple executions — and provided the Soviet Union its closest look at America’s top intelligence secrets, Insider reported.
Ames was paid about US$1.4 million over 20 years and Hanssen slightly less with estimates between US$800,000 and US$1 million.
That works out to as little as US$40,000 to US$70,000 a year, per spy.
To be worth so much, the target would have to be a top priority, if only because of the risks involved in delivering the money itself, and the fear the agent could spend it recklessly.
“Safely communicating with your agents is the most difficult, time-consuming and risky part of intelligence operations,” said a retired European intelligence officer.
“So if it’s that stressful, it’s even more stressful and risky when giving them a large wad of cash on each pickup — but that’s what almost all of them want.
“So you have to reward them with enough cash that they feel important and can spend it on their lives in a way that’s nice. But never so much that it’s suspicious and never so much that they start thinking they can stop spying now.”
Current and former intelligence officials seem to agree on one point: Agents that spy for greed alone are the easiest to manage because their handlers only have to fight about the slow dispersal of money, Insider reported
Agents that spy for ideology or ego become much harder to handle over time.
“Greed. I’ll take greed every time,” said one EU police official, who recruits undercover assets. “Legal leverage is the best but money is clear and simple. They will always want more faster than you want to give. It’s clear and logical and not about feelings and ego.
“Most of the time it’s not the money that’s a problem, it’s the hassle of running the agent,” said a retired American CIA officer.
“If they’re ideological or ego in nature it’s going to be an endless hassle of reassuring them they’re brilliant or whatever.”
In the 1970s, Christopher Boyce and Andrew Lee gave a very different face to the cloak-and-dagger set. They were a couple of dopers in their early 20s when they launched their espionage careers, New York Daily News reported.
Both came from well-heeled families from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and had been Catholic school classmates and altar boys.
Boyce’s father had worked for the FBI and the aerospace industry, so in 1974, he pulled strings to get his boy a job at TRW Defense and Space Systems Group in Redondo Beach.
The new hire was put on a top-secret project involving CIA spy satellites. Boyce went to work each day in a place nicknamed the black vault, a room where classified messages were received.
Reading these, Boyce became disillusioned with the land of his birth, so he did what many young people did in the 1970s. He rebelled.
He enlisted the aid of his old friend, Lee, who would be the face of the espionage team that became known by the KGB code names of “Falcon” and “Snowman.”
The story would later be recounted in a 1979 book by Robert Lindsey, “The Falcon and the Snowman,” and by a 1985 movie of the same name starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn.
For more than a year, the two played espionage via the Russian embassy in Mexico City, complete with miniature cameras and elaborate schemes, which earned them an estimated US$70,000 a secret.
Eventually, the plot would unravel and both would be caught and given hefty prison sentences.
Most intelligence services conduct detailed psychological profiles of potential recruits to determine the person’s motivation for defecting, Insider reported.
“They want more money, fine, I got money but how do I get it to them? The same way I get the intelligence drops from them? Hell no, that’s not safe.
“So now we have to work out some very complex way to give them money they’re going to immediately take to a strip club or buy a car and get us both arrested.”
“My point,” explained the retired case officer, “is you’d really better have some good [stuff] and it be exactly what my bosses want from me for all that to become worth it.”